By Regan Treewater
(EJNews) – On December 11, Beth Israel Synagogue will present a world premiere reading of Truman’s Jew, a new play that explores the intrigue and daring struggle that led to the UN partition of Palestine and American recognition for the modern state of Israel.
It is a production that has been decades in the making – perhaps not consciously, but certainly as a journey. So where did it all begin? When did the inception for Leonard Stone’s new play Truman’s Jew take place? I had the privilege of sitting down recently with playwright and novelist Leonard Stone at Beth Israel Synagogue. A charming gentleman with a truly disarming nature, Stone exudes dazzling energy in a way that only an artist can. Soft spoken, but with a razor-sharp wit and flare for drama and suspense, Stone is a gifted storyteller and as he spoke I found myself wanting to hear more and more of his life’s tale.
“Would I embarrass you to ask your age?” chuckled Stone jovially. “Well, you see, this all first began twenty-years before you were born. I am a native of Winnipeg,” he began. “In 1963 I received a phone call from B’nai Brith. I had been involved in the world of arts and promotion and they said ‘We are going to have a fundraiser in November, and we would like to have Harry Truman as our guest speaker and honouree, can you make those arrangements?’ and of course I said ‘yes’ without having any idea how one would go about this,” he paused with a grin.
“Long story short, I called the Truman Library in Missouri one night. I called after hours when no one would be there, thinking ‘well, nobody will say yes to me, but nobody will say no either.’ So at least I could say I started the process,” continued Stone. “And the phone rang incessantly; it was about 5:30 pm. Well, I was getting ready to hang up; I had decided to hold on for three more rings. Then, a voice said ‘hello’ and I was completely startled. I said ‘Is this the Truman Memorial Library?’ and the gentleman said, ‘It’s the library but there’s no memorial, President Truman is very much alive still.’ I said, ‘Does he have an office there?’ and the voice on the other end said, ‘Yes he does.’ And I said, ‘Well does he ever come in from time to time?’ the voice said, ‘Yes he does.’ ‘He wouldn’t happen to be in the building right now, would he?’ I asked, ‘Yes he is’. ‘Well, do you think it would be possible to speak with the president?’ There was a small pause, then ‘This is President Truman speaking.’ So my new friend Harry and I had a twenty minute conversation – it was quite remarkable.”
And so, began Stone’s astonishing story about how the seed for his new play was first planted 54 years ago.
Sadly, President Truman’s visit never came to fruition. “He told me, ‘I’ll have to check with Jack and see if he needs me to help with any fundraising at that time.’ I didn’t realize that ‘Jack’ meant JFK,” chuckled Stone.
In what Stone calls “a very touching letter” on the former president’s own stationery, posted from his home address, Truman apologized profusely that he would not be able to attend.
“About four years ago I was downsizing all of my archives and collections,” Stone continued. After offering the extraordinary letter to his eldest son the recommendation was made that the document should be returned to Winnipeg as that was where the story first began. “And the person who called me over 50 years ago to ask me to arrange Truman’s visit was still alive, and he remembered!”
This man from long ago who thrust Stone down this interesting path suggested that the letter might find a perfect home in an upcoming exhibition, chronicling activities in Winnipeg during the formation of the Jewish State. After being formally invited to tell the letter’s story and speak about Truman’s contribution to Israel, Stone jumped down the rabbit-hole, so to speak, and began a journey of archival discovery. “As I researched I began to think ‘This would make an excellent story’ so that was the spark.”
“My generation, and certainly my parents’ generation – we knew that Harry Truman was a powerful voice in the efforts to get the UN to petition for an Arab and Jewish state,” explained Stone. “My kids today are in their 40s and one wonders how much of this history they know. Coincidentally I had my Bar Mitzvah, and three weeks after the State of Israel was founded. So I felt a connection to the history…But as I went through the materials, as I went through the archives, the story that unravelled was not the story I had been told. There was this mysterious, enigmatic man, who worked on Truman, and he was Jewish, and that’s the Jew in the title Truman’s Jew.”
The man referred to in Stone’s title is David K. Niles an advisor to both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Niles proved to be a significant and influential advocate championing the Zionist cause as a trusted member of Truman’s circle.
“Truman’s wife was a flagrant anti-Semite; his mother was a racist and an anti-Semite. Truman as a young man was even a member of the KKK. So why did this mysterious Jew turn to Truman of all people to help save the Holocaust survivors?” Stone postulated emphatically. “I didn’t want to talk about the history per say but about the mystery.”
Truman’s Jew will be premiered as a staged-reading at Beth Israel in December. David Horak, an instructor at MacEwan University, has signed on to direct Stone’s debut play. “Everybody knows how it’s going to end because the State of Israel exists. Dave gets it, the vision, the drama, the mystery.” All the characters in Stone’s play will be brought to life by professional actors with casting to be overseen by Horak.
Stone’s play will provide audience members with a rare glimpse into a moment in history that changed the course of the Jewish world. Please join Stone and his family for this auspicious occasion on Monday December 11th at 7:30 pm. To reserve your tickets today contact Beth Israel at 780.488.8240 or purchase them by clicking here. You will not want to miss out on this rare opportunity to journey back in time with Stone’s world premier. And after the show, seize the occasion to go meet Leonard Stone in person – you will absolutely be happy you did.